Attorney General William Barr told Congress that the special counsel’s 22-month investigation did not conclude that President Donald Trump or any individuals associated with his campaign conspired with Russian efforts to meddle in the 2016 election.
But on the question of whether the President obstructed justice with his response to the investigation, Special Counsel Robert Mueller ultimately decided “not to make a traditional prosecutorial judgement,” neither exonerating nor implicating the President.
Barr reviewed the evidence with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who was in charge of the Mueller investigation from the start, and determined it wasn’t sufficient to establish that Trump obstructed justice.
The White House immediately claimed a win. “The Special Counsel did not find any collusion and did not find any obstruction,” Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said in a statement. “AG Barr and DAG Rosenstein further determined there was no obstruction. The findings of the Department of Justice are a total and complete exoneration of the President of the United States.”
In his first public comments since Barr’s letter, Trump referred to Barr’s summary of Mueller’s report as “complete and total exoneration.”
“It’s a shame that our country had to go through this,” Trump told reporters at the Palm Beach International Airport before boarding Air Force One to fly back to Washington. “To be honest, it’s a shame that your President had to go through this.”
“This was an illegal take-down that failed,” Trump said.
Congressional Republicans also seemed to view this as a positive development for the President.
“Great day for President Trump and his team,” South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee and one of the first recipients of a four-page letter from Barr, said in a statement.
Mueller was primarily investigating two main questions: whether Trump or anyone in his orbit conspired with Russia in its efforts to influence the 2016 election, and whether Trump obstructed any investigations into that matter.
In the letter, Barr quotes Mueller’s report as stating on the first question, “”[T]he investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.” On the second question, Barr says Mueller “did not draw a conclusion— one way or the other” on whether Trump obstructed justice, and that after reviewing Mueller’s work, Barr and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein determined that the evidence was not sufficient to establish that Trump had done so.
Barr, who has been working through the weekend, sent Congress the notice around 3:30 pm on Sunday, just two days after Mueller completed his investigation and filed his final report. But there is more to come. “My review is ongoing,” Barr noted in his letter.
Even as Republicans claimed victory, Democrats highlighted the portion of Barr’s letter stating that Trump was not exonerated. “President Trump is wrong: this report does not amount to a so-called total exoneration,” Rep. Jerrold Nadler, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said in brief remarks to reporters in New York City on Sunday.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer offered a similar response. “For the president to say he is completely exonerated directly contradicts the words of Mr. Mueller and is not to be taken with any degree of credibility,” they said in a joint statement.
The information Barr has released also did not immediately satisfy House Democrats. For months, Democratic lawmakers have been asserting they have a right to view the report in its entirety, including the classified sections, so they can determine if they were properly designated. Democrats also want all the underlying evidence and documents, which they claim are crucial for shaping legislation and fulfilling their constitutional duty of conducting oversight.
Schumer and Pelosi pointed out in their statement that the ambiguity surrounding the obstruction of justice question was further evidence for Barr to release the report in full. “Attorney General Barr’s letter raises as many questions as it answers,” they argued. “Congress requires the full report and the underlying documents so that the Committees can proceed with their independent work, including oversight and legislating to address any issues the Mueller report may raise.”
Since the announcement on Friday that Mueller had delivered his report to Barr, lawmakers, many of whom were not even in the nation’s capitol because Congress was on recess last week, have been working over the weekend to shape their message, stressing the need for transparency.
Speaking on an emergency conference call for House lawmakers on Saturday, Speaker Nancy Pelosi told the 120 members of her caucus gathered on the call that any briefing Congress received must be unclassified so they can properly relay it to the public, according to a person on the call. Pelosi also told her caucus she would reject any offer to only brief the “Gang of Eight” — the top Congressional leaders and intelligence committee members — or any other subset of lawmakers.
Democrats have been anticipating for months they will not receive everything they have requested and that legal action may be necessary.
“If subpoenas are denied, we will haul people to Congress,” Rep. Adam Schiff, the Chair of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.” “And yes, we will prosecute in court as necessary to get this information. And we will win that litigation.”
Nadler even said specifically on Sunday after Barr sent his letter that he’d be calling the attorney general in to testify before the House Judiciary Committee.
Simultaneously, House Democrats are also trying to jump ahead of the arguments the White House will likely make in order to keep the report from being publicized. On Sunday, Nadler preemptively stated that any arguments the White House gave about executive privilege wouldn’t pass muster.
“I do not believe it exists here at all,” said Nadler. “As we learned in [U.S v. Nixon], executive privilege cannot be used to hide wrongdoing.”
That’s where Barr comes in again. If he sends a more detailed summary, the attorney general would need to decide how much to share with the White House and how generous to be in evaluating whatever claims of executive privilege White House lawyers assert over aspects of the text. Some Democrats fear that Barr’s long-held beliefs in a strong executive could make him sympathetic to the White House once it begins deciding what should be privileged, even as he has continually proclaimed the importance of transparency surrounding the Mueller report.
“If the White House makes wildly over-broad assertions of executive privilege, and Barr goes along with that,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, tells TIME, “there’s a real concern there that the top line happy talk [about transparency] will be completely undercut by erroneous or exaggerated assertions of executive privilege.”
As of Sunday morning, the White House hadn’t been briefed on the report’s contents, according to White House spokesman Hogan Gidley.
Trump spent the day in Florida golfing with Graham, former Republican South Carolina Congressman Trey Gowdy and acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney.